Can fashion brands revitalise the monogram?
Once seen as a sign of privilege, they are being undermined by ubiquity.
When Georges Vuitton, son of Louis Vuitton, created the original monogram in 1896, he could never have imagined the impact it would have on the cultural and style landscape for the next century.
His design - essentially a sequence of four individual motifs - was artfully arranged on the surface of the luggage the brand was known for, making it instantly identifiable.
Since then, the monogram has become a symbol of luxury: Fendi, Gucci, Céline and Chanel are just a few of the prestige brands that over the years have used their monograms to visually differentiate themselves - and be a siren of sorts to label-conscious shoppers. The interlocked Cs, inverted Gs and graphic Fs stacked together like squares: savvy shoppers can identify them at a glance.
"Monograms have become a cultural icon and a symbolic legacy rooted in these brands' history," says S.J. Hsu, chief creative officer of Ogilvy Fashion & Lifestyle, which specialises in branding fashion and lifestyle clients in China. "These brands reinforce their heritage through introducing contemporary interpretations to their monogram collections."
Few luxury labels have embarked on such a course as determinedly and in such a high profile way as Vuitton, which is just about to kick off perhaps its most ambitious monogram-related project yet.
The Icon and The Iconoclasts collaboration puts the Vuitton monogram back in the spotlight, this time under the auspices of some of the world's finest creative minds.
Shoe designer Christian Louboutin, photographer Cindy Sherman, architect Frank Gehry, industrial designer Marc Newson and fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld and Rei Kawakubo are reinterpreting the monogrammed canvas in the shape of a new style of bag. The individual pieces form part of an collection that will launch globally next month.
This is not the first time that Vuitton has re-envisioned its monogram: in 2002, the brand brought in Takashi Murakami, a Japanese artist with a bold, psychedelic aesthetic who created a series of handbags in kaleidoscopic colours and cutesy motifs. It was daring and original - and a monster success for Vuitton. The timing for such a project could not be better, given that monograms are losing some of their lustre: their ubiquity, the proliferation of counterfeits, and a move away from ostentatious displays of consumerism to a quieter appreciation of fine pieces are eroding their appeal.
Alice Kim, founder of New York-based image consulting and style coaching company Veritas, believes monogramming has reached saturation point, with mid-tier brands such as Dooney & Bourke, Coach and Michael Kors getting into the act.
"What used to be a sign of quality, exclusivity and luxury has now become a caricature of itself ... a design motif rendered by all brands, without discretion. That can't be a good thing for luxury brands."
What is especially telling is how monograms are showing up - or not - on the global fashion scene. When Tom Ford took over at Gucci in 1994, one of the first things to go was the rampant monogramming on its canvas bags; replaced by the double G as bamboo handles on handbags. In the 1980s, every socialite in town sported the Chanel earrings with the double C on the surface; now those are found mostly on vintage resale items.
Contemporary designers have taken a cheeky stab at the monogram, with various degrees of success. This year, Jeremy Scott for Moschino utilised the red and yellow of McDonald's, and its golden arches, as a quirky logo on parts of his collection - a statement rather than a stab at commercial viability. When Alexander Wang did the same with his intriguing barcode logo, rendering it in laser cut and leather, the effect was modern and accessible.
Stav Giannoulis, account manager at the London and Toronto-based PR specialist Reicura, which has worked with brands such as Gucci, says that the tide is turning.
"It is very important for global brands to strike the right balance between exclusivity and popularity," she says. "Most recently within the fashion world there has been a shift towards playing down monograms and logos. Brands such as Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta, which do not use monograms, have been on the rise.
"True luxury fashionistas are more concerned with being in the 'know' as opposed to being in the 'show'."
The soon-to-be-unveiled Louis Vuitton offering may breathe new life into the monogram. Louboutin takes his signature lacquered red sole and covers the entire surface of a tote in it, save for the monogrammed handles; Sherman offers a trunk that opens to reveal pull-out compartments and little drawers and a nice-sized mirror; a ballgown might not fit in there, but all the jewellery and make-up to go with it certainly will. Gehry offers a sculptural bag with a teal blue monogrammed interior, while Lagerfeld's unbridled imagination conjures up a rounded bag with, bizarrely, a pair of boxing gloves tethered to it, elongated totes reminiscent of punching bags and a trunk designed to be a vertical, travelling closet. Newson's backpacks are partially covered in sheepskin in shades of cobalt blue and burned orange, designed to do double-duty as a pillow. And Kawakubo's tote has holes cut into it, which might appear to defeat the purpose of using a bag, but that's high fashion for you.
Sophisticated consumers who once favoured monograms are looking at other ways of expressing themselves. Loree Rodkin, a Los Angeles-based jewellery designer who has created pieces for singers Cher and Elton John and US First Lady Michelle Obama, says she's stopped taking monogrammed luggage on her travels.
"Now I find myself using bright red aluminium luggage instead," she says. "And if I carry a Chanel bag, it has to be with the most minimal logoing. What I see is the trend to be more elitist in a quiet way."
The practice of utilising monograms "to brand yourself as a luxury product or at a luxury tier" is no longer a good idea, Argues Constance Dunn, marketing and branding instructor at the University of California, Santa Barbara extension, and the author of Practical Glamour.
"There have been too many struggles within companies that have had to rebrand themselves or think of product extensions because of the ubiquitousness of the logo," she says. "When you see every girl with the same bag, you lose your core customer - that international moneyed customer who wants something exclusive."
Simon Van Booy, an award-winning author based in New York, has some tips for people who can't do without their letters: have things monogrammed with your own initials instead of those of a fashion empire.
"I love monograms, not as a way to convey wealth or to distinguish myself, but for the simple reason that when I die, all my Jermyn Street accoutrements - including a silver champagne de-fizzer, will be inherited by people who have no choice but to think of me when blowing their nose, or offering their silk scarf to the person who will eventually become their wife as the opera curtain falls," he says.
"My advice for getting them is not to be obvious. Request their placement where only you, your lovers, and your launderer can see."
Kim of Veritas cites the Luxury Goods Worldwide Market Study in 2013 by Bain & Company pertaining to China - often considered the last bastion of conspicuous consumption - which revealed consumers were moving "to a global mindset of uniqueness, high-quality and understatement".
"For the rich," Kim says, "it's now passe to carry goods that are commonplace, regardless of how impressive the price tag is."
So how have companies such as German luxury leather goods maker MCM managed to buck that trend?
Hsu says: "In the fashion industry, what really counts is creativity and originality in its design. So the success of any label relies heavily on how it can creatively interpret contemporary culture, and the same applies to heavily monogrammed brands."
Despite a slowing in the mainland luxury market recently, Hsu believes this gives elite brands a chance to adapt to the changing Chinese consumer.
As shoppers in tier-one cities become more sophisticated, they are increasingly splurging on newer luxury products overseas, she says. "So the market is still here and there remain a lot of opportunities for luxury brands to win in China."